Advancing the Science

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December 26, 2019

Biomedical diversity grants propel Mayo students into research

By Advancing the Science contributor

A brave new world of genetics and genomics

Cherrise Marcou, Ph.D.

Cherisse Marcou, Ph.D., participated in the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical SciencesInitiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program during her graduate school training. A native of Nassau, Bahamas, Dr. Marcou describes the program as a blessing to her.

“Mayo has a large Ph.D. program in a large institution, so it was nice to be part of a smaller group I could lean on and connect with,” she says. “A dedicated group of scientists and physicians at Mayo Clinic is focused on maximizing diversity at all levels in the sciences, which allows students to gain their footing in the field and gain confidence to pursue careers in science. The rich resources available through the IMSD program helped me succeed in graduate school.”

Dr. Marcou says the IMSD program offered a way to connect with other students on the same journey. “We focused on applying for grants specified for students from diverse backgrounds, had a safe place to discuss issues related to being in a field that historically has had underrepresentation of minority groups, provided opportunities to attend conferences and network, and had a chance to mentor others from diverse backgrounds as we advanced in our training.

“With help from grant-writing exercises in the program and help from my mentors, Larry Karnitz, Ph.D., and Michael Ackerman, M.D., Ph.D., I received an NIH F31 Ruth L. Kirchstein National Research Service Award. Getting this award, which promotes diversity in health-related research, while I was in in graduate school was a major milestone.”

After nine years of training at Mayo Clinic — a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences-Molecular Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, and American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics fellowships in Clinic Cytogenetics and Clinical Molecular Genetics — Dr. Marcou left Mayo for almost two years. She used her training as a senior clinical scientist at GeneDx, a Maryland-based genomics company focused on genetic testing for rare and ultra-rare genetic disorders. In May 2018 she returned for a position in the Division of Laboratory Genetics and Genomics in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology with a joint appointment in the Department of Clinical Genomics at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Dr. Marcou is now a clinical laboratory director focused on the analysis and interpretation of genetic test results; managing teams that perform testing; developing assays related to the rapidly evolving field of genetics and genomics; and educating Mayo Clinic physicians, colleagues, external providers, and the next generation of scientists and health care practitioners.

“I’m happy to be back at Mayo, where I received stellar training,” says Dr. Marcou. “I’m grateful to Mayo Clinic for its dedication to broaden the way science looks and wanting to increase diversity. Growing as a scientist involves mentoring others. I’m excited to be a role model and a face of what it’s like to be a successful woman from an underrepresented group in the sciences.”

First-generation college student maps out a path to a research career

Brian Garcia

Brian Garcia recently enrolled as an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Stanford University in Stanford, California. Born in Cuba, Garcia is Latino and in the first generation of his family to attend college. He graduated from Florida International University in Miami and spent two summers working in the Laboratory of Structural Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Garcia qualified for Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences’ Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), which provides support for diverse students in preparation for professional school application.

“I learned about programs like PREP at a research conference a few years ago and thought I should look into them to make myself a more attractive candidate for an M.D.-Ph.D. program,” he says.

Garcia says his year at Mayo Clinic, working with Louis (Jim) Maher III, Ph.D., developed his capacity as a scientist. “I worked full time in the lab, participated in meetings, shadowed physicians and took a graduate school genome biology course. It felt like I was a first-year grad student. The mentorship at Mayo Clinic is excellent — some of the best I’ve seen. It can be frustrating to map out your path if you don’t have the right mentorship to know what you need — substantive research experience, shadowing and volunteer work. Dr. Maher helped guide me.”

Garcia says he believes his PREP experience influenced Stanford’s decision. “It showed my level of preparation and ability to commit to an eight-year training program.”

Research training opens up possibilities for a young father

Eduardo Davila, Ph.D.

Eduardo Davila, Ph.D., participated in post-baccalaureate enrichment training at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences for two years in the late 1990s.

As an undergraduate student at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and a participant in diversity programs there, Dr. Davila presented his research findings at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) meeting. There, Dr. Davila met Richard (Rick) McGee, Ph.D., associate dean of Mayo’s graduate school at that time, who invited him to apply for the school’s post-baccalaureate training program. Dr. Davila says Mayo’s was one of only two such programs at the time — “an incredibly rare opportunity.”

Dr. Davila was accepted at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, where he was mentored in the lab of Esteban Celis, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Immunology, studying tumor immunotherapy. After two years of mentored research, Dr. Davila entered the school’s Ph.D. program. He received a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences – immunology and stayed at Mayo Clinic for postdoctoral research training in rheumatoid and transplantation immunology.

“Without the research opportunity and close mentoring at Mayo Clinic, I don’t know where I would have ended up,” says Dr. Davila. “I might have become a car mechanic like my parents wanted me to be. Dr. McGee introduced me to opportunities I never knew I had.”

Dr. Davila is Mexican-American. His parents came to the U.S. illegally when his mother was pregnant with him. He says his parents worked hard, but the family still lived in poverty. Dr. Davila is in the first generation of his family to go to college.

“I really struggled the first two years” he says. “My wife and I had our first child as teenagers and had another child by the time I was in college. I attended classes full time and worked to earn money for my family. I didn’t want my wife or kids to live in poverty, and education offered promise.”

Today Dr. Davila is a professor in the Department of Medicine and the Amy Davis Chair of Basic Immunology Research, Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative at the University of Colorado Denver’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. His research focus is cancer, T-cell research, and novel therapies.

It comes as no surprise that Dr. Davila has submitted an application to start a PREP at the University of Colorado to foster the development of young minority students who aspire to be scientists. He also initiated a PREP in his previous position at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he was an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

“I had great mentors at Mayo Clinic. Every faculty member I interacted with was dedicated to serving the student population,” says Dr. Davila. “I want to give those same opportunities to others and help them have an impact in the world.

“When you come from a background like mine and don’t have the right connections, you don’t know what’s out there. My day-to-day existence focused on survival — getting my next meal — not thinking about my grades or a career in science or medicine. Getting even a brief glimpse at those possibilities as a young student is so important. You see that there are opportunities beyond what you could imagine. PREP is much more than the NIH mandates it to be. Students are exposed to new scientific techniques, sophisticated instruments and a new level of commitment to making sure they succeed. It helped to launch me into the career I love.”

This article is part two of a series about Mayo Clinic graduate school grant programs that launch students into careers in science. The first article appeared on December 10, 2019.

This article was originally published in Mayo Clinic's Alumni Magazine, Issue 3, 2019.

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Tags: Brian Garcia, Cherisse Marcou, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Eduardo Davila, Education, Esteban Celis, immunology, Jim Maher, Larry Karnitz, Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Michael Ackerman, People, Richard McGee

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